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Survivor Of Bataan Death March Dies; Albert Brown Was 105

We'll pause for a moment to consider a remarkable life:

"Albert Brown, the oldest living World War II veteran and survivor of the 65-mile forced World War II trek known as the Bataan Death March, has died," Illinois' The Southern Illinoisan newspaper reports.

He was 105 and passed away Sunday at a nursing home in Nashville, Ill.

The Associated Press report on his death begins with this:

"A doctor once told Albert Brown he shouldn't expect to make it to 50, given the toll taken by his years in a Japanese labor camp during World War II and the infamous, often-deadly march that got him there. But the former dentist made it to 105, embodying the power of a positive spirit in the face of inordinate odds."

The wire service adds that Brown, who began his military service in 1937:

"Was nearly 40 in 1942 when he endured the Bataan Death March, a harrowing 65-mile trek in which 78,000 prisoners of war were forced to walk from Bataan province near Manila to a Japanese POW camp. As many as 11,000 died along the way. Many were denied food, water and medical care, and those who stumbled or fell during the scorching journey through Philippine jungles were stabbed, shot or beheaded."

Brown told the Southern Illinoisan that when he was freed in September 1945, he was "blind, I couldn't hear, I was in terrible shape."

His sight slowly came back. And according to the AP:

"He took two years to mend, and a doctor told him to enjoy the next few years because he had been so decimated he would be dead by 50. But Brown soldiered on, moving to California, attending college again and renting out properties to the era's biggest Hollywood stars, including Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. He became friends with John Wayne and Roy Rogers, doing some screen tests along the way."

The Southern Illinoisan writes that Brown's daughter, Peg Doughty of Pinckneyville, Ill., says her father "never considered himself a hero. ... I guess he just figured he was at the wrong place at the wrong time."

One more fascinating fact about Brown: The Nebraska native's godfather was Wild West legend "Buffalo Bill" Cody.

For some history of the Death March, there's material posted here from Public Broadcasting's American Experience. And Smithsonianmagazine has retraced the route.

Update at 3:40 p.m. ET: As we said earlier, author Kevin Moore co-wrote a biography of Brown and today spoke with NPR's Melissa Block about the Death March survivor.

The march and the three years Brown spent in a prisoner of war camp, "was a horrific, horrific experience," Moore said.

Brown told of starving prisoners who were forced to march, beaten if they slowed down, and beheaded if they couldn't go on. "They were denied water the entire 5 to 6 day march," even though there was plenty available, said Moore.

"There were very few times that he could speak of it without pausing [and] getting a tear in his eye," Moore added.

Melissa asked Moore to read a passage from the journal that Brown kept during his time as a prisoner.

"I don't know why I continue to live while others so much younger and stronger than I die," Brown wrote. He eventually concluded, Moore said, that perhaps it was because he kept his mind working.

"I think what he was saying was ... find one thing, find a sliver of hope to hang on to just long enough until you can get a little nourishment," Moore said.

And finding nourishment was an enormous challenge, Brown remembered. In the camp, prisoners were typically only given three small balls of rice a day. To survive, they sometimes did things such as picking undigested corn kernels out of horse manure and boiling them for food.

An edited version of Moore's conversation with Melissa is due on today's All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

Update at 2:35 p.m. ET: All Things Considered host Melissa Block is this hour talking with Kevin Moore, co-author of a biography of Brown — Forsaken Heroes of the Pacific War: One Man's True Story.

As Connecticut's NewsTimes.com reported in January, Moore writes in the book about the journal that Brown kept while he was a prisoner.

"[There] was an officer with a samurai sword," Brown wrote. "They just had [prisoners] kneel down and just whacked the head off — that happened a lot.

"If you didn't stay in the pack ... you were either going to get shot or they'd cut your head off ... We marched five days without a drop [(of water]."

We'll update this post again with some of Melissa's conversation with Moore. And All Things Considered is due to air some of the interview on today's show. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.